The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As a homeless transgender woman, she had turned to sex work to survive. Then she was killed.

A mourner holds a candle at a gathering to recall Ashanti Carmon, a 27-year old transgender woman who was shot to death March 30. (Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post)

Ashanti Carmon was about 16 years old when she first stood out on K Street in the nation’s capital to look for sex work. Rejected by her family for her identity as a transgender woman, she was homeless and desperate.

In the decade that followed, Carmon moved from friends’ couches to budget motels, finding support from a community of other transgender women in Washington. She fell in love, moved in with her boyfriend and sought jobs at fast food restaurants, her friends said. She started relying less and less on sex work, knowing how dangerous the streets could be for someone like her.

But last weekend, she was back on Eastern Avenue, a popular strip for sex workers and a gathering place for transgender women, straddling the border between Northeast Washington and Maryland. At 6:20 a.m. on March 30, police were called to the 5000 block of Jost Street in Prince George’s County, Md., just off Eastern Avenue, to reports of gunfire.

Carmon, 27, had been shot multiple times and was pronounced dead at the scene.

Police continue to investigate her death and have not identified any suspects or motives. It’s not clear what Carmon was doing that night or whether the fatal shooting had anything to do with her identity as a transgender woman. But her death, which took place the day before Transgender Visibility Day, has shaken the transgender community in the D.C. area, becoming the latest symbol of the pervasive dangers faced by transgender women of color — particularly those who turn to sex work for survival.

“It doesn’t matter what the reason was at all. She was a member of our community,” said Earline Budd, a longtime transgender advocate who knew Carmon through the local nonprofit HIPS, which helps support sex workers. “This was a young woman, and she lost her life.”

Since 2013, at least 128 transgender and gender-nonconforming people have been killed in the United States, according to a 2018 report by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. At least 80 percent were transgender women of color; nearly 70 percent were black trans women.

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In 2011, just blocks from the site of Carmon’s death, a 23-year-old transgender woman named Lashai Mclean was also shot to death. In July 2016, about a mile away, 22-year-old Deeniquia “Dee Dee” Dodds, also a transgender woman, was fatally shot in the neck during a robbery. Prosecutors said a group of men targeted Dodds and other victims for robbery because they worked as prostitutes and had cash. Last month, a judge declared a mistrial on the murder charges in Dodds’s death.

“We’ve had these conversations before. We came together time and time again in these neighborhoods for the same reason,” local transgender activist Ruby Corado said, speaking at a vigil in memory of Carmon last week. “We don’t have to die on the streets of this city.”

Described by her friends as a tall, vivacious woman, Carmon was widely known and beloved in the transgender community in Washington and Alexandria, where she lived with her fiance. With her bright makeup and long hair and nails — always the gel polish, with glitter — she loved to dance, especially to “Single Ladies” by Beyoncé, her good friend Donshia Predeoux, 32, said.

“She really wasn’t built for the streets,” Predeoux said. “She was always too cheerful. . . . You have to be very rough when you deal with Eastern Avenue.”

But for many years, Carmon knew only life on the streets. She had suffered through a childhood of rejection and loss, even though she hardly ever talked about it, her friends said. She grew up in a family that struggled to accept her desire to live as a woman, according to Carmon’s longtime friend and former roommate, Nialah Dash. Carmon’s mother died several years ago, her father was largely absent, and her grandmother was deeply religious and opposed her gender identity, Dash said. The Washington Post was unable to locate Carmon’s relatives.

By the time she was about 16, Harmon found herself homeless in the District. When a group of women invited her to K Street to earn some cash as a sex worker, she went along. It was on one of those nights when Predeoux first met her.

“I was surprised by her being out there, so young and so fresh,” Predeoux said.

Dash offered Carmon a place to stay in a house with several other transgender women in the Brentwood neighborhood of northeast Washington. The two friends would end up living together for years, and they got tattoos together inspired by “Thelma & Louise,” the 1991 movie about best friends on a road trip. “She had Louise on her arm, and I got Thelma,” Dash said.

When they were eventually forced to leave the Brentwood home, the two friends would share hotel rooms, moving from place to place, and go out on Eastern Avenue on an almost nightly basis to pay the bills.

“Some days we couldn’t pay for the room,” Dash said. “We were going through hard times because we didn’t know where we were going to live. We would sit together in the car and cry.”

From time to time, Carmon’s grandmother would stop by to help her, but her visits came at a cost. Each time they met, Carmon would wrap up her chest, cover her hair with a hat and wear sweatpants and T-shirts to look like a man. She would cover up her long fingernails with gloves — even in the summer, Predeoux said.

Then, in October 2013, Carmon met Phillip Williams, who would later become her fiance. Introduced by a mutual friend, the couple moved in together a few years ago, but they struggled to find an apartment they could afford.

They had been living at the Brookside Motel in Alexandria, along with their recently adopted black-and-white cat, Larissa, a name Carmon picked out.

In February 2015, Williams wrote with a heart emoji on Facebook that the two were in love, “and its a good feeling for us because there’s someone out [there] for somebody.”

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Life became more stable for Carmon in recent years, said Williams, who works at the McDonald’s at 14th and U streets in the District. She started only going out on Eastern Avenue on the weekends, and her friends encouraged her to stop pursuing sex work altogether.

Just about a week before Carmon’s death, Dash ran into her in the District. They laughed about the fact that they both had the same Cardi B ringtone on their phones. But when Dash learned that Carmon was still working in prostitution, she told her, “you need to get out of this.”

While a sex worker in the District, Dash had been robbed at gunpoint on two occasions, including once by a client, she said.

When Predeoux last saw Carmon shortly before her death, Carmon said she had gotten a job at a Dunkin’ in Virginia. “She was telling me she wanted to change her life, she wanted something new, she wanted to get married,” Predeoux said. But “the money wasn’t coming in as she thought it was going to come in,” Predeoux said.

“She was there for her survival,” Predeoux added. “She wasn’t a drug addict; she wasn’t an alcoholic.”

Her death serves as a painful reminder of the challenges transgender women of color face when seeking employment and affording the high cost of living in the D.C. area, local advocates say.

“Most of you who knew Ashanti knew that struggle,” Corado, the founder of local LGBT advocacy group Casa Ruby, said while speaking at Carmon’s vigil on Tuesday night at the site of her death.

Many at the vigil said they would like to organize a funeral for Carmon, but they have had trouble reaching her family.

Budd, of local advocacy group HIPS, spoke of Carmon’s “fight back and forth” with her family over her gender identity.

“What I want to say to Ashanti’s family is, it’s all right. I went through that. Many of us have gone through that,” she said. “But at the end of the day, you need to know that we stand by you. We want you to reach out to us so we can give Ashanti her closure, the day when we celebrate her life.”

“Don’t feel guilt,” Budd added. “Allow us in; don’t keep us out.”